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Women still fighting for a different world

 The Big Issue South Africa 10 October 2019

To some, the concept of feminism may no longer seem relevant; all the bra-burning and mobs of dungaree-clad women demanding equal rights may seem slightly pointless when women have fought for, and won these rights and more. Rebekah Kendal looks into the role and value of feminism in South Africa today, and found that although the battle may have been won, this struggle is far from over. (1951 Words) - By Rebekah Kendal


Feminism. Now there's a word with a bad reputation. I feel tempted to star-out the offensive letters. F****ist? Me? Never! Look at my leg - there's a razor cut to prove my point. And, no, that charcoal smudge is not from last night's bra-burning bonfire. In fact, I was just about to ditch my shoes and whip up a batch of muffins.

Reality check: as far as f-words go, feminism really isn't all that bad. It beats fascism, fanaticism, and fundamentalism. Unlike freak or fatty, it isn't actually insulting. And it brings new meaning to the words fight, fear, force and fornicate. In fact, it's an f-word we could all be using a little more frequently in South Africa.

"I think there are many South Africans who believe in the basics - that women deserve education, the right to vote, and to be free from violence," says Jennifer Thorpe, the editor of Feminists SA.

"I think, however, that many of these South Africans still laugh at sexist jokes, still encourage their boy children to be strong - boys don't cry - and their girl children to be weak - girls don't play contact sports - and are still too scared to go next door and ask what's going on when they hear fighting."

Maybe this is why we start squirming every time the f-word pops out.

"Feminism, as a term, puts some people off - they imagine imperialist-minded women, with class power, 'dumping on men'," explains associate professor Jane Bennett of the University of Cape Town's African Gender Institute.

"For us, feminism is very simple: the realities of gender - being seen as a 'man', a 'woman', or a 'transgendered person' - impact people's lives in terms of whether they can get work, which work, whether they are safe in their homes and their communities, whether they have freedom of sexual choice, whether they are seen as powerful and dignified individuals whose lives matter, whether they are treated with justice and equality, and whether they treat others in the same way."

Bennett points out that that gender-realities are always intertwined with other realities and you can never talk about all men or all women.

"But if you do see the difficulties, and you see that being gendered as a woman is contributing to what is happening, and - this is key - you want to fight for a different world: that is feminism."

A different South Africa

A different world - now there's something worth thinking about. Perhaps a different world, a different South Africa, is one in which women are not abused and killed by their intimate partners. Perhaps, in that South Africa, girls have equal access to education and women are paid the same as their male counterparts. Perhaps the 55,000 or so women who reported cases of rape and indecent assault in 2009 would not have had to do so.

The tricky thing is that South Africa's Constitution already promises such a world. It guarantees every conceivable protection and freedom. However, for many South African women these rights exist only on paper.

"It helps to think about rights in a different way: what does it take to make the formal right 'real'? It takes economic empowerment, a sense of safety and dignity, and it takes living in communities where all work is shared fairly, where people can exercise freedom of choice in terms of their sexuality, and where racism and xenophobia don't shape people's lives. If we think like this, the fact is very few South Africans can exercise their 'formal rights' fully," explains Bennett.

Economic empowerment

Not surprisingly, when it comes to economic empowerment, race is a determining factor. Of women, white women are the most economically empowered; however, they still lag behind their male counterparts. According to a 2010 Job Crystal survey, white men earn 53% more than white women and 116% more than black women.

The survey suggests that overall, men earn 41% more than women in South Africa. This may be, in part, because men still occupy more managerial and professional positions than women. According to the Stats SA Labour Force Survey for the first quarter of this year, 775,000 men occupy managerial positions compared to 361,000 women. Similarly, there are 93,000 more male professionals than female. Domestic workers on the other hand, are predominantly female (842,000 compared to 35,000 male).

"Although there are no formal barriers such as laws that prevent women from advancing in the workplace, the reality is that the playing field is still not equal," says Shamillah Wilson, chief executive of Sowilo Leadership Solutions and a member of the African Feminist Forum.

"While South Africa has certainly made great strides in empowering women in the workplace, statistics verify that the age-old 'glass ceiling' is very much in existence.

"Results from the South African Women in Corporate Leadership Census show that in 2006, only 16.8% of executive leadership positions were held by women (down from 19.8% in 2005). While it is true that there are few performance and development differences between men and women at the management level, the reality is that top executives continue to hire people in their own image to become their successors."

Wilson argues that, in addition to these barriers, women are also often faced with the challenge of having to balance family work and a career. She suggests that women who prioritise their families often experience major career setbacks.

Gender-based violence

While economic empowerment is relatively quantifiable, other rights - such as the right to security of person and the right to bodily and psychological integrity - are less easily measured. And this is only partly because the violation of such rights is often not reported. Thorpe, who also works for Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, describes how gender-based violence permeates South African society.

"On the ground, women's rights are being impinged upon by the constant threat of violence - domestic and gender-based violence takes many forms. It can include economic deprivation by a partner, physical violence and emotional or psychological violence such as harassment, rape or femicide. We have incredibly high levels of violence against women in South Africa, which affect their ability to live out their democratic freedoms."

Thorpe argues that this violence can, in part, be attributed to our society's understanding of what it means to be a man.

"South African masculinity has historically contained elements that are being challenged by our Constitution and the increasing empowerment of women," she says. For example, many South African men tend to believe that the man should be a breadwinner, be physically strong, should be sexually virile, and that men have a right to women's bodies.

"This understanding of what it means to be a man is being threatened by women's freedom, and yet it is not being challenged by public figures or custodians of culture," says Thorpe. "This leaves men feeling disempowered and with a need to re-exert themselves. This understanding of what it means to be a man, combined with the violence of masculinity that has characterised South Africa's history, has created a situation where women are the chosen scapegoats for men's frustrations. Women bear the brunt of a threatened, outdated, unsustainable South African masculinity."

Burden of patriarchy

Desmond Lesejane, who works for the Sonke Gender Justice Network, points out that the existing constructs of gender are damaging not only to women, but also to men.

"Men are expected to carry the burden of patriarchy such as being providers and protectors even when they are physically or economically unable to do so. The 'strong man' mentality also opens men to risky and violent behaviours such as unsafe sexual practices and alcohol abuse," he explains.

Lesejane suggests that negative reactions to feminism are often fuelled by the belief that, "the goals of feminism are a zero-sum game where women gain everything and men lose it all. Not enough emphasis is placed on the reality that patriarchy oppresses men as well."

He argues that in addressing the "fundamental fault lines in gender relations," it is necessary to understand men better. "This will assist with developing better and more targeted interventions to challenge men's normative behaviour and also mobilise men for gender activism."

And that, really, is a key point. Feminism or gender activism should not and cannot simply be the preserve of women. Without contribution from both men and women, reshaping our society into one where people are not shackled by their gender will be near-impossible.

As Bennett so eloquently puts it, perhaps the most pressing issue on the South African feminist agenda is, "creating South Africa's right to claim ourselves as a people who understand what it means to live under systemic and daily violence and who are committed to building another world."

Freedom. Now there's an f-word we can all believe in.


Feminism in Africa

According to Yaliwe Clarke of the University of Cape Town's African Gender Institute, "African feminism" refers to people, places and ideas that stem from the continent. While feminist movements outside the continent may influence movements within the continent, the context of Africa provides specific feminist challenges.

"When we talk about African feminism we are speaking about the need to address the specific inequalities that stem from gender discrimination on the continent. For example, if we look at inheritance rights in many places in Africa, we can see the frequent marginalisation of widows and their daughters in access to land. As a result, inheritance rights have been a key site of activism for African feminists," explains Clarke.

"Other issues which have been central on the continent include gender discrimination in access to education, health, economic empowerment and leadership. These inequities have resulted in significantly skewed access to resources, relationships and freedom within South Africa and the African continent. Reducing inequality requires challenges to inequalities in the way society is constructed."


Rebekah Kendal's (very) brief history of feminism

The term feminism was first recorded in the English Oxford Dictionary in 1895, but feminism, in one form or another, existed long before this. So-called modern feminism has been divided into three main waves. It is important to note, however, that even within waves, the aims, methods and degree of extremism differed from one social context or geographical area to the next. The "waves" of feminism refer, for the most part, to the Western world.

The First Wave

Late 19th - mid-20th century

The first wave was largely concerned with suffrage, working conditions and educational rights for girls and women. Because there were many laws which still discriminated against women, this movement was focused on absolute rights and bringing about a change in legislation.

The Second Wave

1960s - 1980s

Often referred to as "Women's lib", the second wave encouraged women to look at aspects of their personal lives, such as reproductive rights, as deeply politicised. It challenged cultural inequalities and the role of women in society.

The Third Wave

1990s - early 21st century

While the second wave of feminism is still ongoing, a third wave has emerged in response to the second wave. While some of the issues tackled are the same, the third wave also seeks to challenge what it sees as shortcomings or failures of the second wave. This challenge is based, in part, on the idea that the second wave of feminism relied too heavily on the experiences of white upper-middle class women.

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